Not too big of a grammar idiot?

We've all been there. You write a business letter, perhaps a cover letter to go with a resume, pop it in mailbox or fax machine, then moments later you wince in pain.

"Dang!" (OK, that's not really what you say, but I can't use those words here.) "Did I make a grammatical mistake? Should I have written that I'm 'not too big of an embezzler' instead of the version with no 'of,' 'too big an embezzler'? Should I have written that I've been in prison 'a couple of times' instead of 'a couple times'" Should I have written, 'the reason is because I'm a pathological liar' with the word 'because' in there? I should know this stuff. What an idiot I am!"

Then, to salve our open wounds, we start looking for the silver lining: "Well, at least if I don't get the job I'll know why: the grammar."

Whether convicted or acquitted on a technicality, most American job seekers have two things in common: 1. We don't know these finer points of language, and 2. We feel as if we're the only ones who don't ? as if the rest of the world knows this stuff and is laughing at our mistakes.

But the truth is, almost no one knows these things.

Luckily, I happen to be chronically unemployable, which means I have the time to look them up for you and write about them. (Of course, it also means that I'll try to hit you up for some spare change at the freeway off-ramp, but blame the economics of community newspapers for that.)

Let's start by comparing, "I've been fired a couple times," to, "I've been fired a couple of times." (The difference, if you missed it, is the little "of" in the second example.)

Do you know which one is right? Most people are never taught the difference, but instinct is always a great guide. That's why most people would opt for the one with "of," and those people would be right.

Here's why: "Couple" is a noun. Not an adjective. Some dictionaries may contain adjectival forms, but they're the exception and not the rule. An adjective can modify a noun like "times" without a helper preposition, "happy times." But nouns work differently. You may have a shot of brandy in your first cup of coffee at the office, but you don't have a "shot brandy." You need the "of" because "shot," like "couple," is a noun.

So what about "of" in situations like the following:

Interviewer: "What would you say is your biggest fault?"

You: "I'm too big of a sexual harassment liability," or, "I'm too big a sexual harassment liability."

Well, this is a case in which "of" is not your friend. In fact, Bryan Garner in his "Garner's Modern American Usage" calls this the "intrusive 'of.'"

"The word 'of,'" Garner writes, "often intrudes where it doesn't idiomatically belong, as in 'not that big of a deal (read 'not that big a deal'), 'not too smart of a student' (read 'not too smart a student'), 'somewhat of an abstract idea' (read 'somewhat an abstract idea')."

So in all these examples, the "of" is wrong. How could you have deduced that using nothing but grammar knowledge? Well, you probably couldn't have (note, this is not "couldn't of," but "couldn't have") because it's not based on rules but on usage. As Garner suggested, this construction is idiomatic. So you just had to know the idiom. And now you do.

Easy stuff, right? And to think of all the great jobs I could have landed if it hadn't been for my grammar.

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